Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice – Part 1
When I posted the blog on my Facebook page, Gerry commented:
“What about pot?”
To which I answered: “What about it?”
He took the challenge and looked at famous authors and their drug proclivities.
Here’s Part 1 of his report.
“Drugs are a bet with your mind.” – Jim Morrison, 1943-1971, poet, songwriter.
In the 19th Century the drugs of choice for writers and poets was opium and hashish, expanding to a cornucopia of substances in the 20th Century.
Why the link? R. Douglas Fields, a neurobiologist, writes on a Scientific American blog: “Statistics show that among all categories of creative artists, writers suffer by far the highest incidence of bipolar disorder. . . Cured of their mental illness, such artists and writers would be gutted of their creativity and stripped of the means to realize it.”
And many artists who have “healthy minds choose to accept the Faustian bargain an induce madness with drugs to reach new summits in their art. . . some artists are willing to endure the self destruction of devastating mood disorders and psychosis of mental illness to fuel creative works of art by deliberately inducing these mental states with drugs to unbalance an otherwise health brain.”
Cultivation of opium poppies for food, anesthesia and ritual purposes dates back to the Neolithic Age. It was a potent form of pain relief for thousands of years. Widespread use of opium continued through the American Civil War, before giving way to morphine, which is processed from opium.
In 19th Century Britain, opium was cheap, legal and widely available. Morphine was commercially available by the early 1820s.
English essayist Thomas De Quincey, 1785-1859, tried opium in 1804 to relieve the pain of a toothache, taking it in the form of laudanum – as many Victorians did – a tincture of opium dissolved in alcohol. The effect was immediate and transported De Quincey to another realm.
He wrote that the pain vanished and he was “swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me — in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness. . . happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle: and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.”
De Quincey was addicted within a few years and tried kick the habit with little success.
De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) launched a fascination with drug use and abuse, writes Robert Morrison, Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. De Quincey “invents recreational drug taking, but he also details both the lurid nightmares that beset him in the depths of his addiction as well as his humiliatingly futile attempts to renounce the drug.”
De Quincey described the dark side of opium addition in Confessions, noting the states of gloom “amounting at last to utter darkness,” and lurid nightmares of persecution, violence, incarceration, and death,” Morrison writes.
However, De Quincey overbalanced “on the side of the pleasures of opium; and…the very horrors themselves, described as connected with the use of opium, do not pass the limit of pleasure.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that his poem, Kubla Khan, was composed one night after experiencing an opium-influenced dream, before which he read a work describing Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China Kublai Kahn. Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Shelly all used opium.
Did it help make them great poets?
M.H. Abrams for his senior honors thesis at Harvard in 1934 wrote how an opium-using poet, “utilized the imagery from [opium induced] dreams in his literary creations . . .”
The great gift of opium, Abrams wrote, “was access to a new world; one which ordinary mortals, hindered by terrestrial conceptions, can never, from mere description, quite comprehend. It is a world of twisted, exquisite experience, sensuous and intellectual.”
Before your reach for the pipe or the laudanum, consider Althea Hayter’s 1968 book, Opium and the Romantic Imagination. Hayter suggests that opium use reveals “some of the semi-conscious processes by which literature begins to be written.”
Opium-induced dreams may have inspired the Romantic poets, Hayter writes, but opium works “on what is already there in a man’s mind and memory.” What separates the Romantic poets from the run-of-the-mill opium users – and less talented writers – is being able to communicate these visions in a poem.
Opium might provide “that heightening of experience that every poet wants to feel and then to impart. . . But it can never be a substitute for innate imagination . . .”
Although opium may present the writer with unique material for his poetry, “it will probably take away the will and the power to make use of it.”
Opium won’t transform you into the next Byron or Shelly. Not even close. Opium’s better known cousin today is heroin, which is derived from morphine. Heroin will not put you on the road to literary brilliance, but it can kill you. You certainly don’t need me to tell you that.
Confession, and I can say this because I am not planning to run for office, I smoked pot and I inhaled. I never attempted to write while I was high. I never wanted to do much of anything, as I recall.
Napoleon’s troops discovered hashish in Egypt and brought cannabis back to France where it became a popular recreational drug.
The Club des Hachichins (Club of Hashish Eaters), active from 1844 to 1849, numbered Charles Baudelaire and Alexandre Dumas among its members. Baudelaire reportedly didn’t personally use hashish much, but observed the effects of the drug. In 1860 he published Les Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises).
“It sometimes happens that people completely unsuited for word-play will improvise an endless string of puns and wholly improbable idea relationships . . . But after a few minutes, the relation between ideas becomes so vague, and the thread of your thoughts grows so tenuous, that only your cohorts… can understand you.”
Been there, done that.
“At first, a certain absurd, irresistible hilarity overcomes you,” he wrote. “The most ordinary words, the simplest ideas assume a new and bizarre aspect. This mirth is intolerable to you; but it is useless to resist. The demon has invaded you…”
The senses become “extraordinarily keen and acute . . . In sounds there is colour; in colours there is a music…” Baudelaire wrote. All is “complete happiness. There is nothing whirling and tumultuous about it. It is a calm and placid beatitude.”
Every philosophical problem is resolved. Difficult questions become clear and transparent. “Man has surpassed the gods.”
Eventually you come down, of course, and Baudelaire concluded that while hashish enhances the imagination it is highly dangerous to subordinate all such processes to the drug. For the creative artist to believe that they can create only when “high” is a disaster.
Based on my limited personal experience, the last thing I wanted to do when high was sit in front of a typewriter (did I mention that it was a long time ago), and write. Taking Baudelaire at his word, I think it unlikely the legalization of pot will lead to a literary renaissance in Colorado. However, it may become the most blissfully happy state in the country.
End of Part 1
Watch this blog for Part 2 of Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice